Denver firefighter inspired by Julia Greeley’s example

Even 100+ years after Julia Greeley’s death, Denver’s ‘Angel of Charity’ is still making an impact on the lives of firefighters in Colorado, like Lt. Derrick Johnson.

“Julia Greeley has been harassing me,” Johnson told the Denver Catholic with a laugh. “It is funny to say that, but Julia has not left me alone.”

Johnson is a Denver native, a 14-year veteran of the Denver Fire Department and now a candidate in the archdiocese’s diaconate program. Johnson says people kept randomly asking him about Julia, so he finally looked her up.

“She cared so deeply for the wellness and spirituality of Denver firefighters,” Johnson recalled of what he learned. “This woman would go and talk to people like me and try and enroll them in the Sacred Heart Society, give them information on confession, or just sit there and talk to them about God. I looked at it and said, ‘Here I am now trying to live my faith because I feel called to do so, and trying to serve my brothers and sisters in the fire department, why wouldn’t she want to get in touch with me?’”

Greeley was a former slave from Missouri who made her way to Denver in the late 1800’s and became known for serving the poor, but also making routine trips to Denver firehouses. It is believed her affinity for firefighters may have started in 1895 after a fire at the St. James Hotel on Curtis Street killed four firefighters from Denver Engine Co. 3 a few blocks from where Greeley lived.

“She saw how quickly firefighters can be killed,” said Johnson. “She had a warm place in her heart for them and she went and she ministered to them.”

Johnson’s path to becoming a firefighter started in 2001. His original plan was to join the military and travel the world, but in April of 2001 his mom was hurt in a fall and Johnson felt compelled to stay closer to home. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, and Johnson says he found his future career.

“The images of [the firefighters] rushing in as everyone else is rushing out, the images of them digging at ground zero,” Johnson recalled. “I think also the sense of community within the firehouse that they experienced,” he said, is what led him to pursue being a firefighter.

Johnson became a firefighter in 2004, but despite choosing a profession of service, he admits the Catholic faith he was raised with was no longer a priority. His call back to the Church came after Johnson and his wife Lindsay had their son Jack in 2010, and he had a conversation with Father Frank Garcia at St. John the Evangelist in Loveland.

A Denver Firefighters Honor Guard processes in for the 100th Anniversary Mass of the death of Servant of God Julia Greeley at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 7, 2018, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

“He challenged me to step up and embrace my vocation of marriage,” Johnson said. “The center [of the universe] had been me, but then the idea came that the center could not be me anymore, the center had to be God and everything else had to be around it.

“Once I consented to letting God in, He flooded the gates with a lot of grace.”

Johnson says his faith grew from there, and he explored what it meant to be “an all-in Catholic.” Johnson admits he initially laughed at the idea of becoming a deacon, but he is now discerning that call.

“I know that God has called me to formation,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if God will say, Yes you will be a deacon,’ — I have no idea, but at the same time I am here to say yes to Him. I will open myself and I know I have at least been called to the next step.”

Johnson will be ordained a deacon on June 26, 2021, at Light of the World Catholic Parish, he’s also become the Denver Fire Department’s official liaison to the Julia Greeley Guild. Johnson lined up an honor guard of Denver firefighters at the Mass which celebrated the 100-year anniversary of Greeley’s death, and while the Catholic Church considers Greeley for possible sainthood, Johnson tries to continue her work here in Denver by being a spiritual resource for his fellow firefighters and serving the city of Denver.

“I have a deep devotion to Julia, and her life is absolutely a model,” Johnson said. “Her mission as she walked the streets of Denver was to be like Christ to the poor, and while the fire department wouldn’t say our job is to be as Christ, our job is to serve the poor.”

Featured photo by Mark Haas

This article was originally published on June 14, 2018, and has been updated on June 7, 2021.

COMING UP: Archdiocese honors Julia Greeley on 100th anniversary of her death

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Hundreds gathered at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception the evening of June 7 to celebrate Mass for Servant of God Julia Greeley a century after she passed away.

Those in attendance had the opportunity to see Julia’s tomb up close and pay their respects to the woman on her way to sainthood.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila presided over the Mass.

“Today is a historic day for the Church of northern Colorado as we gather in this Cathedral church to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of Julia Greeley on this vigil of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” he said during his homily.

The archbishop explained that Jesus’ selfless love given through the Eucharist is the same type of love Julia embodied in her own life.

“It is deeply rooted in sacrifice,” said Archbishop Aquila. “It is deeply rooted in giving oneself completely to the Lord no matter what the cost may be.”

Julia grew up a slave. She lost her eye when her mother was being beaten and the whip hit her instead, and yet she still lived a joyful life.

After becoming a free woman and moving to Denver, Julia walked around offering necessities to the poor. She spent one Friday a month walking to local firehouses, where she handed out pamphlets on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Julia not only had courage to spread love in these ways, but she did it while battling arthritis all over her body.

“Even in the midst of her terrible arthritis and in the brokenness and pain of her own body, she still carried a joyful spirit because she knew the love of Christ,” said Archbishop Aquila.

“Her life is a witness to grace, to the power of God, and to the humility and the total gift of self.”

The archbishop asked those present to consider the deep love Jesus has for each and every one of them and to use Greeley’s life as an example of holiness.

“… we lift our hearts in gratitude to the father for the gift of the sacred heart of Jesus, for the gift of his son to the world, and for the faithfulness of a former slave woman who was truly rooted and grounded in love,” he said.